It’s natural during times of sudden change and unpredictability to live with a heightened sense of worry. Worry, a pattern of dwelling on potential difficulties, is a normal part of the human experience, and in fact, can help us prepare and find solutions for new or difficult situations. However, unproductive worry can keep us in a constant state of agitation and affect our overall health.
“Overwhelming worry can lead to issues such as difficulty sleeping, high stress and anxiety, headaches and muscle pain and even weakening of your immune system, which can potentially lead to chronic diseases,” says Judith Gissy, a treatment coordinator with TriHealth EAP®, a program of TriHealth Corporate Health. “That’s why it’s important to discuss your options with your primary care provider when worry becomes severe enough to impair our daily lives.”
For those looking to lessen the impact of worry on their lives, Gissy offers these self-help tips:
Listening to ourselves think can be a powerful tool to help minimize worry. We can take a “time out” to recognize when we are stuck in a pattern of worry, and then correct the thinking patterns that generate it. For example, we can “catch ourselves” jumping to conclusions, anticipating the worst scenario, discounting the positives, personalizing, or having an “all-or-nothing” pattern of thinking. We then can challenge ourselves to think of the situation in a more productive and creative way.
Worry can feel like a continuous tape loop that steals our emotional attention. Interruption techniques can help us “push the reset button” and start over with a healthier pattern. Simple techniques can be to go outdoors, call a friend, or watch a funny video. We also can develop our own silly “re-set ritual” like standing up, turning around three times, looking at the ceiling and smiling. In time, the skill of mentally starting over gets built into the ritual, and automatically helps us escape the pattern of worry.
Trying to push worries out of our mind usually make them more intrusive; however, temporarily storing and setting a time to worry about them can be effective in minimizing their impact. Schedule a 20-30 minute block per day as a routine time to worry. As worries arise, we write them down, assuring ourselves that we won’t forget them and waiting until the “official worry time” to give them our attention. This often helps us gain control over our worry, which takes away its power.
Worry can make us feel battered by circumstances beyond our control. One antidote is empowerment – feeling reassured we are going to be well no matter what happens to us. We can get in touch with our own empowerment by remembering situations in the past in which we have persevered. Another technique is to generate positive slogans called affirmations, and repeat them to ourselves on a daily basis. Examples of effective affirmations are “I am strong and capable,” “Take it one day at a time,” or “I can accomplish anything I set my mind to.”
One “fertile soil” for worry is the insecurity of feeling adrift from others. One solution is to maintain a strong connection to our own support system. This can include family, friends, social organizations, our community, coworkers, and our spirituality. As we communicate and receive friendship, love and support from others, we feel reassured and protected from our worries. Tools to develop a strong support system include reaching out to friends, joining social activities, and staying in touch with our extended family members.
Spirituality can have a powerful impact on calming worry. How each of us practices our spirituality is very personal. It can vary from engaging in a formal religion, to praying, to meditating, to reading daily reflections. Spirituality can fill us with faith, peace of mind, gratitude, a deeper purpose in life and a connection with a power greater than ourselves, all of which can heal the habit of worry. Spirituality also incorporates healthy emotional practices, such as acceptance, selflessness, forgiveness, and mindfulness.
Exercise is one of the best tools we have to reduce anxiety. Regular exercise reduces tension, drains excess energy, triggers endorphins, calms our minds, and improves our sleep. We also can apply “on-the-spot” exercise when we find ourselves trapped in excessive worry. Exercise can include games and sports such as volleyball or bowling; weight-bearing exercises like walking or running; chores, including housecleaning or yard work; flexibility exercises like stretching; or strength-building exercises like weight lifting.
Worry often is fueled by strong “feelings habits” such as insecurity, perfectionism, social comparison, pessimism, and a need for control. The worry may be a survival mechanism from past trauma or a component of a mental illness. Counseling can be a safe place to share worries and can help address underlying reasons behind the worry. It also can provide a place to discuss and practice strategies for managing worry and connecting with support.
“These tips can not only help you mitigate the impact of worry and anxiety on your health,” Gissy says, “they can also prove to be a benefit to your overall mental and physical health. However, they are not intended as a substitute for care provided by your doctor. Any time you feel that worry or any other influence is negatively affecting your health, you should consult with them.”